If not Washington’s, whose man is Iraqi PM al-Maliki?

If not Washington’s, whose man is Iraqi PM al-Maliki?

The inexhaustible saga in Iraq over the sectarian-fuelled political skirmishing was widened late this week with Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, launching another salvo at a leading Sunni politician amid the absence of a reluctant mediator, the country’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani.

In a raid dubbed a “political crackdown” by Iraq’s Sunni leaders, security forces raided Finance Minister Rafie al-Esawi’s office and detained dozens of his bodyguards. Al-Esawi says over 100 were nabbed, while al-Maliki’s office puts the number at only six. Whatever the conflicting accounts say, the raid was reminiscent of what happened a year ago, when self-exiled Sunni Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi’s office was raided. Fleeing from al-Maliki’s wrath, al-Hashemi took shelter in Turkey before he was repeatedly sentenced to death in absentia.

Amid fears of a similar scenario on al-Esawi, the raid is the tip of the iceberg. Being in the eye of a storm for his sectarian-motivated moves and close ties with Iran, al-Maliki has been at odds not only with Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis, but even with the Shiite groups. During his first years in office, he tried to bury the hatchet with other groups in a never-accomplished task. He claimed there was an improvement in the security situation, denying the existence of a civil war. Nearly a decade after the occupation, he forged a deal with the United States for the troop withdrawal in an opportunity for him to boost his power to an absolute level.

Holding the positions of acting interior minister, acting defense minister and acting national security minister added to his prime ministerial powers, al-Maliki has been somehow lucky regarding his survival against many political plots by his opponents.

The timing of the clampdown on al-Esawi, who called it a “pre-election blow,” was also attention-grabbing as it came hours after an ailing Talabani went to Germany for treatment after a recent stroke. With Talabani’s departure from Iraq, al-Maliki has been left without any constitutional power above him. The president is not in office, his Sunni deputy has been forced into exile and his Shiite colleague, Dr. Khodair al-Khozaei, is a member of a party allied to al-Maliki’s.

Nevertheless, al-Maliki’s way to near-dictatorial ruling is not entirely cleared of hurdles. The Kurdish government in northern Iraq, with which al-Maliki has recently come to an all-out-war, seemingly over a military base but actually over oil and gas revenues, is on the watch for another round. Backed by Sunnis, former Premier Iyad Allawi is ready to put the last nail in the coffin of al-Maliki’s political life. Despite their previous alliance and same ethnic roots, other Shiite groups that have united under an alliance that has split off from al-Maliki’s bloc, are also waiting in the shadows for their turn on Iraq’s political stage.

For the U.S., the Iraqi premier’s move was the latest in a series of quarrels with Washington as the Barack Obama administration’s influence in the country has been scrutinized, especially after the withdrawal of the troops. In a development seen in Washington as evidence of further rapprochement with Tehran, al-Maliki freshly turned down U.S. requests on many core issues, including those about Iran and its allies, Syria and Lebanon. Despite U.S. skeptics being uneasy over his links with Tehran, where he spent many years during his fight against Saddam Hussein’s rule, al-Maliki frequently hailed Iraq’s ties with Iran.

There are growing doubts about who al-Maliki, who once said he “considers himself a friend of the U.S., but not America’s man in Iraq,” is counting on while taking bold steps in a fragile country and who will be the “real winner” behind the scenes in Iraq. The aforementioned sentences clearly hinted at a power which is not far away.